It is now time to break out the big guns of horror, just in time for Halloween. In my previous article, I detailed the best the horror genre has to offer in the modern era, that being 2000-present. Now, we go back to the beginning, everything before the year 2000 to mine the best of the best in the genre, the ones that changed the game and caused sleepless nights for people by the thousands. As with the previous article, there will be many left out, and so I will have an exhaustive list in the honorable mentions section. For most of these films, it helps to put yourself into the perspective of someone watching these films when they came out. In the modern era, we are incredibly desensitized, and it takes the most horrendous depictions to shock our senses. Audiences in this previous era were far more susceptible to shock and awe, and many of these movies literally left psychological damage to people in their wake. Without further introduction, let’s take a look at the heavyweight champions of horror.
6. Halloween (1978)
The film that set the template for quite literally hundreds of “slasher” flicks and left audiences looking over their shoulders for years, this John Carpenter masterpiece still holds up in the modern era brilliantly, with one of the most memorable killers, music scores, and suspenseful moments of any horror film in existence. Michael Myers is one of the most iconic killers in all of cinema, and despite many awful sequels (including Rob Zombie versions) Michael retains his quiet and expressionless brutality behind the Captain Kirk mask after all of these years. I cannot wait to see the 2018 Halloween sequel, and will likely review it as well. Interestingly, the Halloween franchise its home to one of my personally most underrated movies of all time: Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which is absolutely worth watching, despite the lack of Michael Myers.
5. The Thing (1982)
Very few can claim the credentials of John Carpenter, a true horror legend, as evidenced by him having the first two entries on this list, and a horror resume that would make anyone proud. In addition to these masterpieces, he was also responsible for another Lovecraftian masterwork, In the Mouth of Madness, which I loved as well. The disgusting practical effects and claustrophobic mystery element place The Thing in the top echelon of horror and manages to do it in another way unique to this and the next title on the list.
4. Alien (1979)
What is unique about both Alien and The Thing, is that they manage to be two of the greatest movies of all time in two genres simultaneously. An incredibly difficult feat to achieve, both manage to be two of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, while at the same time achieving the same in horror. Claustrophobia and tension rear their heads once again, along with one of the most iconic creature designs in all of cinema, the Xenomorph, courtesy of H.R. Giger. Even after all of these years, and innumerable attempts, the original Alien and the Thing stand together at the pinnacle of Sci-Fi horror.
3. The Shining (1980)
I admit it: I have never been a fan of Stephen King. As heretical as that sounds for a horror connoisseur, his books just never resonated with me, and frankly, nor have most of the movies based on his books. There is one exception: the time genius filmmaker Stanley Kubrick got ahold of one. King’s writing combined with Kubrick’s masterful filmmaking created a magical combination for one of the greatest films of all time. Kubrick took the subject matter and used flawless cinematography, casting, sound editing, and framing to create an exemplar of top-tier filmmaking. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have known people, in real life, that had psychological problems after watching this film. I could go on for hours about the genius of this film and all the techniques used, but I will leave it at this, and just say that it is incredibly hard for me not rate this number one, as I consider the top three virtually interchangeable due to subjective style preference, given how they are so radically different.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
Every single movie that has any demonic element owes its existence to this movie. For every Hereditary or Conjuring, as genius as they are in their own right, the Exorcist did it first and still holds up incredibly well. Try to imagine seeing this film in 1973. The country was far more religious back then, and there was no internet to spoil things or prepare people for the sensory assault this movie was about to bring. I saw this film for the first time later in life, and even then was shocked at how over the top some of the scenes were. There are segments in this film that are still disturbing to this day, and though exorcisms and demonic possession have been done hundreds of times, Regan’s possession still stands alone at the pinnacle of the genre.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
How many movies can claim to have invented two sub-genres on their own? Every slasher flick that brutalizes teenagers, and every backwoods psycho redneck story you’ve ever heard originate here, with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Setups that have been used a thousand times or more since have yet to equal Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece. He starts with one of the best ideas in cinema that has been used incessantly since: the fake true story. He lies right up front to the audience and tells you that this story is real, which it isn’t. It takes a few small elements from Ed Gein, the serial killer, but this movie is in no way authentic, however, the technique of telling you that it is, anchors in your mind the plausibility that it might be, which ratchets everything up a notch in intensity.
Then there’s Leatherface and his family.
One of the most effective and iconic villains of all time, he does not linger in the shadows like Michael or Jason, instead runs at a full sprint after his quarry while wielding a roaring chainsaw and wearing a dead skin mask on his face. Interestingly, Leatherface isn’t actually evil, he is mentally challenged, and these teens just happened to set foot in his home uninvited. Every story you’ve heard about getting lost in the woods and hacked up by some deranged rednecks originates here (and with Deliverance). The second half of this movie is relentless in its intensity, as Leatherface and family set about inviting the teens to dinner. Tobe Hooper, on a shoestring budget, creates a setting and characters that still feel authentic and suitably brutal. This movie has been remade multiple times, and even though the 2003 and 2006 remakes are excellent on their own, the original still carves it’s way to the top of the horror mountain and has inspired countless derivatives.
There you have it; between this article and the last, you should have more than enough ammunition to give yourself and everyone you know nightmares for the foreseeable future.
Happy Halloween, and as promised, here is a comprehensive Honorable mentions list stacked with quality.
Psycho: I feel a bit dirty leaving this off the list, undeniable greatness and influence.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula: I love gothic horror, and this is as good as it gets.
Blair Witch Project: Invented an entire subgenre on its own, found footage.
Black Christmas: Arguably the most underrated slasher of all time.
Deep Red and Tenebrae
Friday the 13th Part 2 and 4
Hellraiser 1 & 2
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Omen (Original)
Night & Dawn of the Living Dead
The Universal Monsters
Dead and Buried
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There are still a lot of people out there who don’t understand the appeal of the superhero movie, or the significance of this one in particular. As part of this review, I will endeavor to lay out the significance of both, as understanding them is critical to understanding the final review. First, let me say I’ve been a fan of Marvel comics, and later on the movies, for essentially my entire life. I know more about Captain America and his various associates than is even remotely necessary for any human being. The draw to superhero characters is an easy one to explain: these heroes are a form of wish fulfillment. These characters fight the fights we can’t, and they essentially become ciphers for us to project elements of our personalities onto. Some of the most popular heroes, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man, are what I call “paragon-level” heroes. These are characters that have extraordinary abilities, in some cases godlike but are also completely and utterly morally unambiguously good. Even Batman, who routinely uses more brutal tactics, still has a fundamental goodness about him. These characters for decades have been wish fulfillment fantasies for children and amazing role models.
In the above list, and in the popularity hierarchy of comic book heroes, you might notice there are no black heroes. I’ve heard a number of people questioning why this movie is such a big deal, why it’s breaking records, and why it’s so important to the black community. After all, it’s not as if Black Panther is even remotely the first black superhero movie character, there’s Blade, Luke Cage, Storm, and the Falcon, and even Meteor Man and Hancock. As great as some of those characters are, none are A-List, paragon level heroes that any kid would really see as a great cipher and inspirational model. The Black Panther is significant because T’Challa is on that level. He is the ultimate cipher for any black kid in the country to project their wish fulfillment onto. After all, if you were a parent, who would you rather your child hang out with? Joey down the street who might be doing drugs, or T’Challa and Steve Rogers?Even the final scene in the movie shows a few kids staring reverently at T’Challa and his ship and asking “Who are you?”
It would be great if no one saw color, if everyone just got along, but that’s not real life. In real life, we gravitate toward people that look like us. It’s called unconscious bias, and we can’t help it. So even though a black kid can look at Captain America or Superman and love the character, it matters a great deal that there is one top tier hero that looks like them. T’Challa might not be a god, like Superman, but he is literally a king. He is a king that projects a regal air, that will do anything to defend his country and people. So, he’s rich, handsome, powerful, has the best tech, and on top of it all is actual royalty. This is why the Black Panther is significant. He is the first A-list hero that a black kid from anywhere can look up to that looks like him. This is why the movie almost cannot be judged on typical movie merits. A cursory glance over the reviews shows rapturous adulation from virtually all corners. In a way, most of the reviewers are reviewing the idea, rather than the movie itself. I will endeavor to review the movie on merits, but make no mistake, the context matters a great deal. Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s get to the review.
First of all, let me say that this movie should win every design award possible, and every other nominee should just concede now. Every design element in this movie is bulletproof. Wakanda and every visual element in the entire movie is an unmitigated triumph. I am a sucker for color play in movies, such as we saw in The Last Jedi or Drive, and the use of color in this movie is even more brilliant. The use of striking, bold colors to represent each tribe and class, as well as Wakanda itself are gorgeous beyond belief. The searing red of Okoye and the military juxtaposed with the royal purple of the priests makes for enchanting visuals. The design of Wakanda itself is also amazing, as you have skyscraping monoliths that still manage to retain a primal element, bullet trains that weave amongst the trees and buildings, and hyper-advanced ships built with Vibranium technology. It conveys a style that I think of as “Primal Futurism” where concrete and futuristic cityscapes are interwoven amongst trees and natural outcroppings. Even the font they use for the lettering is amazing, as it somehow manages to bear a custom Afro-Futuristic style. Every costume and outfit is ornate and colorful and boasts intricate design patterns. It is as if Wakanda has existed for centuries, and every design element reflects its legacy.
In other words, Wakanda comes alive, and it is essentially design perfection.
However, you can’t bring it to life without the people. As perfect as the design was, the casting equals the design in every way. Most of the reviews will tell you that Jordan and Serkis steal the show, as over the top villains usually do, and they certainly earn that praise. However, for my money, the real triumph was Boseman’s regal, stoic T’Challa. Any actor will tell you, it’s easier to steal the scene as an intense villain but even harder to do as an understated, thoughtful character. Boseman could not have been a better choice for this role, as he comes across as regal and thoughtful at all times, even when furious. The other high point for me was Leticia Wright, who played the sister of T’Challa, Shuri. She provided great humor and was the requisite tech genius to provide gadgets to the hero, much like Q in the James Bond franchise, who she actually references in the movie. Usually, in a movie, I can pick out one or two people I wasn't a fan of casting, but in this movie there are none. Every casting choice from General Okoye to M’Baku is done brilliantly, and I can’t think of one person that I’d change, except possibly Martin Freeman, ironically one of the only white guys, who would be easily replaceable, even though he does a decent enough job.
So far we have impeccable casting, flawless design, and an unbeatable concept. However, there are flaws. First and most notable to me was the choreography. Filmed in much the same up-close, jerky style that the Nolan Batman Trilogy used, I hated it for the same reason I hated it in Nolan’s Batman films: It’s hard to follow. Especially when filming a character with such grace and power, we should be able to appreciate the fluidity and power of his moves, and yet the camera is in so tight, and changing angles so rapidly that it becomes hard to follow, unlike Captain America: The Winter Soldier where you can feel and see every shot, and every move is meticulously designed. The other negative would be the overall synthetic feel of some of the action sequences. This was an area that Spider-man movies have been particularly guilty of failing, and Panther was no different. The difference is I expect to see overpowered heroes like Spider-Man and Superman in heavy CG. Powered humans such as Captain America and Black Panther should need far less CG. There were a lot of scenes where it was evident that CGI was gratuitously used, and the physics of the action appeared off as well. We are pretty far into nitpick territory right now though as none of that taints the enjoyment of the film.
What of the plot? In true Marvel fashion, the plot does get pretty political, as Erik Killmonger’s entire motivation is to spread vibranium throughout the world to “oppressed” people to kill the leaders and have Wakanda rule it all. It does touch on colonialism and isolationism, and in a touch of irony, Killmonger rails against colonialism, then proceeds to decide to colonize and rule everything himself in an act of ultimate revenge. In a way, the dichotomy between T’Challa and Killmonger mirror the differing voices in the black community such as the more radical factions of Du Bois and Malcolm X, versus the more unity based factions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington, as well as the radical ethnostate advocates like Farrakhan. This dip into really touchy racial and political ideas in my mind actually elevates the film to another level. It would have been easy to churn out a safe by the numbers “Heroes Journey” type of film, but instead they went all in, and actually make us think about the character’s motivations. Part of the success of Marvel movies is the real world social and political ideas they inject into their movies. Whether it’s the surveillance state and whistleblowing in the Winter Soldier, the Military industrial complex in Iron Man, or government regulation in Civil War, Marvel is able to elevate their movies beyond just a bunch of heroes and villains slugging it out, and make you think “What side would I be on?”
In the end, Black Panther resides in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, but that almost doesn’t matter. The impact it will have to kids matters more than any particular plot point or costume. In the end, T’Challa says “We are all one tribe”, but it still matters that he is at the table with the rest, and after this movie, he sits with the best of the best.
PS: The Winter Soldier is still the best Marvel movie of all time.
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